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Going Off the Trail: Ohio might not vote for the President this year… and what that means for politics

Photo courtesy of Bill B via Flickr
Written by Delaney Murray

During a typical presidential election, news coverage steadily turns its attention to a handful of states on election night. In the past, Ohio has been at the forefront of this media attention. But this year, that interest may be slipping away.

Ohio’s status as a bellwether, or an indicator, is what puts all eyes on the Buckeye State when the second Tuesday in November rolls around. The state has consistently voted for the winning presidential candidate — every election since 1964 and in 28 out of 30 elections since 1896. And while a victory in Ohio has usually has been considered important to both parties, a Republican candidate has yet to win the presidency without winning Ohio.

Ohio’s long-lasting importance is not without cause: Ohio doesn’t consistently reflect either major party; it changes with the tides.

“We’ve never been a competitive state because we perfectly match the demographic of the nation. We’re a competitive state because we have no dominant culture, we have no dominant city,” said David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Ohio is a little bit of the South and a little bit of the North and a little bit of the Midwest. And our competitiveness is based on not having that one defining trait.”

But while this mixture has historically led Ohio to vote with the majority of the nation, this year it seems to be leaning Republican while the rest of the nation leans Democratic.

This shift to one party over another plays into exactly who makes up the majority of Ohio’s voting population. Eighty percent of registered Ohio voters are white, and 74 percent of Ohioans over age 24 do not have a bachelor’s degree. This group — white, working class, non-college educated — is one that has made up a large portion of Trump’s most loyal supporters.

But aside from demographics, the lack of campaigning in Ohio early on in the election season (a cause of initial concern) may have less to do with us and more to do with other states.

“The media was all up in arms because Hillary Clinton hadn’t been here for a month, when really that’s just a factor of the election and the fact that she was starting to lose ground in a number of other battleground states,” said David B. Cohen, a University of Akron political science professor.

That initial shift of Democrats’ attention away from the state plays into a key idea: Historically, Ohio has been more vital to a Republican victory than a Democratic one. This still holds true in 2016.

The history of  presidential election results in Ohio shows that while the state is typically an indicator of who will win overall, Republican candidates can rarely pull off a national victory without winning Ohio, while Democratic candidates can.

As a result, other states have begun to play a more central role in this election, particularly North Carolina and Florida.

North Carolina has historically been a Republican state, but an increase in demographic diversity has started to create a more competitive environment. President Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008, which renewed interest in the state’s Democratic presence and has pushed Clinton to invest more resources there.

“The fact that they’re battling over North Carolina shows the Democrats are in the offensive position and the Republicans are in a defensive position,” Niven said.

Florida, on the other hand, has historically been a swing state. It has the most electoral votes after Texas, California and New York, making it one of the most sought-after states. The high amount of electoral votes, combined with a lack of fixed political alignment, is enough to bring Florida to the forefront each election cycle.

Between changes in demographics and campaign strategies, Ohio has not received the same level of election-season attention to which it is accustomed. But does that mean Ohio’s stance in political elections has shifted permanently?

It’s up in the air.

While Ohio’s status has changed this year, so have many things in this election. And the state’s temporary change may just be a reflection of this.

“I think that 2016 is more of an outlier,” Cohen said. “As we’ve seen, this is a very unusual election, and I think the traditional constituencies for the Republican and Democratic candidates have shifted in this election. I don’t think it’s a permanent shift, I think it’s a potentially a temporary shift. That means that some other battleground states like Florida may be little bit more important. But Ohio retains its importance and its battleground status.”

Ohio’s possible change from a true swing state to one that is more Republican also depends in part on the future of the Republican party as a whole — a subject that has already been debated throughout this election.

“If the Republicans truly become the party of Trump, what they’re going to try to do is solidify their hold on the white working class, and the key issue here is, does that voter become unavailable for Democrats,” Niven said.

Despite being a lower priority this election cycle, Ohio has still received a decent bit of campaign attention from both camps.

The Clinton campaign has shifted some of its efforts back to Ohio recently, including former President Bill Clinton’s recent visit to Athens.

“The Clinton campaign knows it can put together a majority without Ohio, but Trump cannot,” said Kyle Kondik, author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.” “They are heavily investing in Ohio because they believe they can win it and effectively choke off any Trump path to victory.”

The Trump campaign remains focused on Ohio as it tries to achieve a vital victory in the state, with recent appearances in Cleveland and Cincinnati.

There is no way to officially tell whether “where Ohio goes, the nation goes” will apply to the 2016 election until the results come in on Nov. 8. But while the exact breadth of Ohio’s influence in both this election and upcoming political seasons is uncertain, Ohio still has 18 unanswered electoral votes that will play a major role in deciding the 45th president.

“Campaigns go into an election writing off huge swathes of the nation. Nobody campaigns in California, nobody campaigns in Texas. Those are states that are simply viewed as unchangeable,” Niven said. “We’re not going to come out of this election in that category, no matter what, we’re not going to be in the list of states that are ignored. It’s just a matter of the states that matter, where do we rank.”

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Delaney Murray

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